In this episode I interview Bert Fitzgerald and Emma Coley from the Simone Weil House, a new Catholic Worker in Portland, Oregon. They explain the ministry and vision of their house of hospitality and outline an exciting new pilot project: demonstrating how an existing faith community can become a community of mutuality within a credit union, able to provide interest free loans to one another.
Bert founded Simone Weil House almost three years ago. Prior to moving to Portland, Bert served as a live-in volunteer at the South Bend Catholic Worker and experimented with a number of alternative economic projects. In Portland, he hoped to start a project that would model some of the less emphasized aspects of the movement. As well as hospitality, he hoped to develop an alternative model of Christian economics.
Emma had volunteered for a Catholic Worker house while she was in high school, and when she was in college she got to know a self organized community for the homeless called Second Chance Village. On a visit to Portland she encountered the newly formed Simone Weil House, and eventually came back to join the project a little over a year ago.
The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was chosen as the patron of the new Catholic Worker House. Bert described her as the Christian answer to Nietzsche. She wrestled with basic questions with the same exacting honesty, but found truth rather than dissimulation in the mystery of Christ.
Simone Weil’s thought can also help us to overcome the “right/left” dichotomy and the compartmentalization of life in general. I recently wrote an article that draws on Weil’s spirituality of attention.
The project started out in a simple and humble way. Bert stressed that he wanted it to provide an example of “Christ Room Hospitality”, something that any home could participate in. By working with a local provider of services for the homeless, Bert had got to know several individuals who were in need of housing. So with his landlord’s permission he invited them to share his house.
Over time, the number of people being housed increased. Simone Weil house acquired tiny houses and converted storage units to provide more living space. Eventually they were able to clean up and use the “Hell House”, a trashed drug house across the street. After a thorough cleaning and two exorcisms, this became “Dorothy Day House”. On any given day, there are now between 11 and 14 people living in the two houses.
Interest free loans
As well as providing hospitality and other services such as free laundry facilities, the Simone Weil house has started a community of economic mutuality that has partnered with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to make interest free loans available to its members..
This project is grounded in Christian spirituality. We all tend to treat members of our families in one way, and members of the wider public in a different way. But what if we broadened the circle of people we treated as family? Isn’t that part of a truly Christian outlook on the world? We are all part of God’s family now, and should treat one another accordingly.
This attitude can even be found in the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament law was concerned with social justice. The people of God were supposed to make sure that individuals or families didn’t fall “through the cracks” due to inter-generational poverty. The Jubilee years were designed to prevent this from happening. Similarly, there was an obligation to redeem the debts of relatives so that they did not fall into debt bondage.
Under the New Covenant, we have an even deeper obligation to redeem debts for one another. Christ died to redeem us from our spiritual bondage. Having received such a great grace, how could we begrudge the effort to redeem others from their earthly debts?
This was actually the origin of Credit Unions. Today they operate in much the same way as other banks, but originally they were founded by religious communities as a way of looking out for one another. The Simone Weil house is trying to recover this tradition.
Simone Weil House has a bank account with the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union called the “redemption fund”. Individuals who who join the mutual community open an account with NDFCU and can choose to have $150 sent to the fund. Simone Weil house identifies local recipients who are in need of loans. They then work to find a “guarantor”, someone who will provide a security for the loan.
In particular, they try to make the whole process serve the building of local community. The guarantor and recipient know one another and build a relationship. In this way, their project is trying to reverse the way that money tends to tear down and atomize community.
An example can help to illustrate how this process works. The following quote comes from a Simone Weil House newsletter reporting on the past year of the project.
The loan recipient, an older man on a fixed income, was in a car accident last year that left him with high medical bills. Unable to access a reputable bank due to his lack of credit, he accepted a high interest credit card offer he received in the mail. He quickly became buried in debt at an incredible 38% interest. He heard about our community while volunteering his time at a local parish food bank, where one of our steering committee members happens to also volunteer. We were able to refinance his debt at 0% interest, and this steering committee member ultimately served as this borrower’s guarantor. Since getting connected with our community through this program, the borrower now comes by our Catholic Worker house multiple times per week with food for our community and to stock our community free fridge.
Different Kinds of Security
The various projects of Simone Weil house highlight something this podcast has discussed before: the different kinds of security. One the one hand, there is the individual attempt at personal security through possessions. This is condemned by the Gospel, but is a defining characteristic of our time. On the other hand, there is the Christian kind of security which is based on mutual self-giving within a loving community. For more on this topic, see our episode on voluntary poverty.
For more information on the many projects of Simone Weil House, visit their website!
Malcolm interviews Joseph Loizzo from the Community of God’s Love in Steubenville. We discuss the way that divisions can arise in community life and how communities need to stay united.
The Community of God’s Love grew out of the Charismatic Renewal movement. It originated when the members of a charismatic prayer group wanted something more committed and intentional. Growth was very rapid. Within a decade or so there was more than 375 members.
Trouble in Community
This rapid growth came with a set of drawbacks. Many of the newcomers may have come in with unrealistic expectations. There was a lot of enthusiasm and zeal, but it wasn’t always very mature. Some of the people charged with leading others within the community were not that experienced. Over time, a certain kind of spiritual pride developed that led to an oppressive atmosphere. It came to be perceived that there was only one way of doing things if one wanted to be “truly holy”. This was very damaging for some of the members.
Eventually, some members asked for an intervention by the local bishop. After reviewing the situation, the bishop asked for a number of changes in the governance and structure of the community. At this point, many of the members became disillusioned and left the community altogether.
This is a common theme in community life. The Gospel tells us “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”; but this can be taken in the wrong way.
For one thing, it can lead to an emphasis on one particular style of spiritual life. People can come to think that their way is the only way, and everyone else’s ways are inferior.
The external marks or practices of holiness can also become too important in people’s minds. Striving for holiness can end up being reduced to an easily quantifiable, measurable set of characteristics.
In combination, these traits lead to a lot of trouble. A competitive spirit can develop that leaves the weaker members behind. The spiritual life becomes all about “measuring up”, “Keeping up with the Jones”, a sort of “merit badge contest”. This can do grave spiritual and emotional damage to the members of community.
Those who are full of youthful zeal are perhaps most prone to this kind of mistake. As Joseph put it, these sorts of things are only realized in hindsight. He said that now the community has come to realize that everyone is striving for holiness, but no one will be perfect on this side of the pearly gates!
It is also important to realize that the commitment to a community is secondary to the commitments members have made to family or a state in life.
Division and Reconciliation
Among the members, a division developed over what spirituality the revamped community should adopt. Some of them preferred a more conventional charismatic spirituality, and some preferred a Franciscan spirituality. This caused the community to split, so that by the early 90’s there were two much smaller communities.
Over time, however, the leaders of the two communities discerned that it was God’s will for them to be reconciled with one another. Eventually, the two communities merged back into one community that was more tolerant of differences in spirituality. At this point the community adopted the name “Community of God’s Love” to mark their new focus on reconciliation and unity.
This is one of the essential aspects of community: we’re all in it together. We’re helping one another along the way to heaven. I’m not always right, and so I need others to challenge me. Community life can be like sandpaper on wood, sanding away the imperfections in each of us. If we expect perfection and uniformity in community, we won’t be able to do this properly.
In this way, community should be like the family. None of us chose our family members. That is the great thing about an authentic community; one becomes friends with people whom one would have never chosen if it had all depended on one’s choice.
In particular, a diversity of spirituality can actually be helpful, so long as it doesn’t become a point of division from others in the Church.
Like other charismatic covenant communities, the Community of God’s Love meets several times a month for praise and worship prayer meetings. There are are weekly small group support meetings, a monthly community Mass, and a Saturday Sabbath ritual to prepare for the Lord’s day. There are also a variety of other events and activities that occur from time to time, including service outreach in the local area.
The community is led by a five-person elected council. Each council member serves for a three year term, and can be reelected for another three year term, but then they have to step away for at least one term. The elections are staggered so all the members are not replaced at once. We discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of this model compared with communities that have more long-term, permanent leadership.
Fear of Commitment in our Culture
One issue that is affecting communities across the country is that younger people in our culture are very adverse to making long-term commitments. Joseph had a first-hand view of this cultural change, since he worked in collage administration for many years. This can be seen in falling marriage rates, greater geographic mobility, lower commitment to long-term jobs, and other social indicators. If community is necessary for fully living out Christian life, this hyper-mobility in our society is a serious problem. The solutions are far from obvious. One possible way to combat this tendency is to provide economic opportunities within the community, so that members don’t have to move across the country for jobs.
For more information on the Community of God’s Love, visit their website here.
Image of the Sacred Heart from All Saints Catholic Church, St. Peters, Missouri by Nheyob; CC BY-SA 4.0
Perhaps the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. It is, at least, the key to properly understanding the Council, according to Fr. Gaitley’s book The One Thing is Three. What does following this call look like in the modern world? Is it really possible to be a saint in suburbia?
The Little Way of the Morning Offering
Holiness does not consist in grand gestures or extraordinary deeds. Instead, for most of us holiness consists in quiet fidelity to the duties of our state in life. We are called to follow what St. Therese called her “little way”: doing small things with great love. Feeding one’s children, the performance of daily tasks, and casual interactions with others can all become transformed if we do them through, in, with, and for Christ. This is the meaning of the Offertory of the Mass. We offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, to become transformed through God’s grace. In popular Christian piety, this is reflected in the beautiful practice of the Morning Offering prayer.
Concentration Camps, Arms Manufacturing, and the Local Grocery Store
What if one’s daily duties, however, were totally incompatible with the Christian life? As a friend of mine put it, what if one worked as a guard for a Nazi concentration camp? Obviously, it would be absurd to attempt the consecration of such a life by offering it to God.
None of us are engaged in such blatant evil. And yet, there is good reason to wonder if our daily lives can truly be consecrated to the honor of God. What if one works for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin building drones and missiles that our military will use in ways that contradict Catholic Just War theory? What if one works for an insurance company that provides coverage for abortions, or a government agency that advocates for abortion? What if one works for a credit card company or bank that lends money at usurious interest? What if one works for a fossil fuel company that contributes to climate change and the flooding of villages on the other side of the world? Or a so-called “Green” energy company whose lithium and cobalt mines are destroying lives in the Global South?
Quite apart from the dubious nature of so many jobs in the modern world, what if one’s daily routine includes buying produce harvested by exploited migrant workers? Their cries reach the Lord of Hosts, as St. James tells us. What if the clothes one buys cost the life of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh?
Indeed, all of our work, all of our lives are to some extent destructive. I’m just as much trapped in this as anyone else. I work in graphic design, producing periodicals that make a quick journey from printing press to landfill. What a trivial and irresponsible use of the world’s finite resources, when so many people are going hungry! I contribute to the “great symbol drain”: the over-utilization and consequent misuse of religious imagery. Try as I might, I can’t always avoid funding evil through my purchases. What are we to do with our terribly flawed lives?
The Kingdom of God in our Daily Lives
For most of us, the answer is not to drop everything and “flee to the fields” or “head for the hills”. We have families and commitments that we can not break. We are trapped: in a certain sense, we are prisoners of the systems of evil we can’t escape. And yet we can’t give way to complacency. We can’t surrender to the systems which have imprisoned us. I think the answer must be threefold.
If we feel trapped, we can offer that up for all the other people who are trapped in worse positions. We shouldn’t fall into the mistake of thinking that just because we are trapped we are somehow unable to follow Christ. Christ himself was “trapped” in unjust situations throughout his life. Our situation does not absolve us from doing the small things with great love. The Morning Offering is still relevant, along with all the works of unpretentious virtue that it implies. We should see our offering not as a consecration of the social evil in our lives, but rather as a share in the sorrow of Christ weeping over the evil and ruin of his city.
As Father Simon Tugwell writes in The Beatitudes:
That is often the way it is in life. Life in this world is a trap. Over and over again we find ourselves in situations which constrain us, and there is no true escape. We daydream of ideal choices, but we have to live with and in the trap. We are trapped in working conditions or personal relationships which bring out the worst in us, we are trapped in the consequences of our own or others’ past misdeeds or follies, we are trapped in the social and economic systems in which we live. We have only the mammon of unrighteousness with which to invest for eternal life.
The resulting sense of powerlessness is one of the major psychological pains of our time, and it can easily lead us to despair.
The answer that the Gospel gives is an austere one … It is not by fretting and flapping, but by bearing the cross of our helplessness and frustration, in union with Christ bearing his cross, that we shall find any genuine power for a more satisfying life.
To offer our situation up in solidarity with others who are oppressed by modernity, we need to stay aware of what is happening and not shrink back. It can be more comfortable to ignore the evil in our world, but we can’t give in to that temptation. If this is our cross to bear, as Father Tugwell says, we should experience the pain of it. We have to think about the sweatshop workers, the migrant laborers, the peasants starving after their crops were destroyed by climate change, and the victims of our unjust wars. We should spend time in prayer for and with the suffering and oppressed of the world.
Part of this remembering can consist in small but concrete practices that put us in solidarity with others. Voluntary poverty can play a part in this. So can practices such as refusing to buy items made in China or other countries that lack labor protections. To the extent possible, such practices should be used to distance ourselves from the benefits of oppression. Our “101 Ways to Change Your Life” list provides a range of suggestions for such small changes in lifestyle.
Such small changes and such awareness will help to keep the longing for a better world alive in our hearts. Faithfulness in small things will pave the way for the ability to be faithful in greater things if God wills it so. Ultimately, we long for the coming of Christ, but also for the coming of his reign of peace in the here and now. We need to keep such longing alive so that when the chance comes, we are ready to change our lives to better reflect the Gospel.
Such chances revolve around the power of community. An isolated family is only able to do so much. But if we gather with others who share similar longings, we can begin to escape the reign of sin in our modern world. Together, we can start taking concrete steps toward establishing the reign of Christ in our lives.
Image of downtown Denver by R0uge; CC BY-SA 4.0
The Happy Are You Poor Blog and Podcast has now been running for over a year. In this episode, I get together with Jason and Peter to discuss the past year and possible directions going forward. We also wanted to express our gratitude to all those who have helped the project to develop and grow, particularly the many guests who have shared their stories with us.
Episodes in a Nutshell
During the episode, we discussed our favorite moments from the podcast. Due to time constraints, we weren’t able to cover everything. In particular, we discussed the many interviews with community members. In chronological order, the project has included interviews with the following:
- Aaron Pott from Casa Karibu Sze-Ming
- Jacke Sharpe from the Bethlehem Community
- Tim Keller from the City of the Lord Community (parts one and two)
- Charles Moore and Rick Burke from a Bruderhof community
- Dan Almeter from the Alleluia Community
- Augustine Tardiff from Madonna House
- Sean Domencic from Holy Family House
- Gerry Martins from Family Missions Company
- Tyler Hambley from the Maurin House
We have also interviewed three authors. We spoke with:
- Dr. Terrence Wright on Dorothy Day
- Professor William T. Cavanaugh on Christian economics
- Dr. Cameron Thompson on the Benedict Option and Catholic Culture
There are a variety of themes that have come up over and over again during the course of the project. We discussed some of these during the episode.
Life in community is not perfect. In fact, if a community bills itself as a perfect place where the members can escape the sin and struggle of the outside world, it is probably a cult rather than an authentic community. In a true community, one experiences a “sand-paper effect” of rubbing up against many different people with different personalities and ideas.
This close proximity can bring out the best in people, but it can also make apparent their flaws and weaknesses. For the individual, this can actually be a good thing. We tend to wear a “mask” in public, presenting ourselves as better than we really are. In community, we don’t have this option. This gives us a chance to grow in humility and to become more authentic in our spiritual life.
Closely connected with this concept of honesty is the the concept of being normal and ordinary. Too often, community is seen as something special or extraordinary. Those in community can be seen and come to see themselves as Christian “super-heroes”. In reality, community is a normal and essential part of the Christian life. As William Cavanaugh explained, community is inherent in the Eucharistic structure of the Christian Faith.
Every community has its own charism, just as individual people do. While we can learn from the experiences of different communities, communities shouldn’t be replicated.
The Danger of Stability
We discussed the fact that community is generally seen as something static and stable. This can be a danger, however. Communities can become stagnant and closed to the Holy Spirit. They can find too much comfort in their normal routines and practices. And so in building community, we need to strive to remain open to others and to outside perspectives.
The Catholic Worker communities are a really good example of this. Their focus on aiding the marginalized in a personal way creates a diverse community. Similarly, their round table discussions promote the participation of those with differing points of view.
Intentional Community: a Contradiction in Terms?
Most of the communities we’ve discussed have been very intentional and structured. They have probation periods for new members, vows or commitments, and a formal identity. In a sense, many of them are rather like lay monasteries. They’re very inspiring, but probably not for everyone. Most people are called to build community in a more informal way. We hope that we can draw lessons from these communities that will help people to build more organic, informal community.
There is a certain tension between highly intentional community and the Christian life. For a Christian, all other Christians should be part of their community. Catholics in particular need to remain within the parish structure; if they pull away from it trouble may result.
This can be difficult, since in the United States most parishes lack a community spirit. They have become “Mass Stops” where people go to “get the sacraments”. This ignores the very purpose of the sacraments, which are intended to bind individuals into the community of the mystical body of Christ.
Further, as Jason pointed out, we should really include everyone in a given area, Christian or not, in our community. We need to be an open, outgoing community rather than one that has inward focus. This is a major theme in the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Despite the “deadness” of so many parishes, a new interest in community is emerging. Peter remarked on the number of people he’s met who are looking for something more, a deeper experience of the Faith that can only be found in Community. Similarly, people don’t need to start out with the vision of communal life. Part of our mission is to present the vision of community life in such a way that others can embrace it.
A start can be made, as so many of our guests have pointed out, by just gathering with a few other people who share the vision of community. Such gathering can be risky if it stops there. It can form a clique, rather than a community. But if such a group is intentionally open to others, it can act as a catalyst for a more communal way of life.
The ideal is probably a network of interacting communities in a local area. This would provide the flexibility needed to accommodate differing charisms and ways of life while still providing the structure and support that community can bring.
Community members need to live life with one another. Economics has to be part of such a shared life. Today, our economic life and our built environment tear down community life rather than building it up. If communal life is ever to become the norm again for Christians, we need to build a different and more supportive economy. At least on a local level, shared work is essential to community development. Such shared work can provide the disparate individuals of a community with a shared interest and a sense of common purpose.
Plans for the Year Ahead
In the upcoming year, we hope to focus more on these questions of organic community development and communal economics. If you’ve got ideas for podcast topics or guests, or about the podcast in general, please contact us!
I recently had an interesting conversation with Jason Wilde and Peter Land, in which we reflected on the first year of our podcast project and discussed the direction of the project going forward. The conversation will be edited and released as an anniversary podcast episode. In this essay, I want to expand on some of the themes that came up.
Walking as Community
We often think of community as a stable, static thing, rooted in a particular place. Peter Land recently took part in a three day walking pilgrimage, and found a deep sense of community among the participants. It made him reflect on the traveling community that surrounded Christ, and also on voluntary poverty and detachment. When one has to carry one’s belongings, simplicity of life starts to seem more attractive! We’re called to be open to the Holy Spirit, journeying together toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the rooted village or neighborhood really the best metaphor for the Christian life? Is such a community even the best setting for the Christian life?
The Dangers of Community
A false sense of security and contentment can certainly be a danger for Christain communities. In my interview with Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof, they pointed out that community members can become attached to their ways of life. They can also slip into seeing the community as an end in itself, as a substitute for following Christ and being open to the Holy Spirit. Communities need to be on guard against becoming self-referential and satisfied with themselves.
A spirit of poverty keeps these problems in check. Although factual frugality of life is necessary, being “poor in spirit” means more than merely living simply. Wealth represents an attempt at control, a grasping at security. The rich fool of Luke 12 thought he was all set once his barns were full of grain, but his security was an illusion. Even without material wealth, we can fall prey to a spirit of wealth that desires control and security on individual terms. To avoid this, the community must practice poverty, but must also exercise a “preferential option” for the poor. Poverty comes in many forms, and there are many ways that communities can reach out to the poor of the surrounding community, whether those in need of food and clothing or merely those in need of a listening ear. The community must refuse to treat anyone as “outsiders”, and instead should see everyone as part of their community in Christ.
By reaching out and entering into the life of others, we are freed from false contentment, security, and routine. The life of Catholic Worker communities provides a good example of this dynamic in practice. Not only do they practice voluntary poverty and service to the poor; they invite “outsiders” to participate in the life of the community and host “round table discussions” that provide a platform for dialogue with a diversity of views.
These same dynamics can affect the Church as a whole. Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation to complacency with how things are, which leads to insular thinking and a focus on the structures of power in the Church rather than on our journey to the Kingdom. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, we are a pilgrim Church on the road with one another, an evangelizing Church reaching out to those on the peripheries. We must never lose sight of the Apocalypse, the coming of the kingdom for which we pray in the Our Father and for which we are called to work in our lives. Only by going beyond ourselves, reaching out toward God and neighbor, can we avoid the stagnation that leads to decay.
This is the second episode in which Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Jason Wilde discuss Laudato Si. Pope Francis has said that Laudato Si is not a “green” encyclical, but rather a “social” encyclical. Our first episode set the stage by discussing the long history of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). In this episode, we discuss Laudato Si‘s call for “ecological conversion”.
The Religious Perspective of Laudato Si
In chapter 2 of Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.
Pope Francis is not discussing environmentalism as a secular scientist might, from a purely material standpoint. Rather, he is calling for a spiritual conversion. A conversion is a turning, a change of heart. In this case, we are being called to turn away from ourselves and toward God, our neighbors, and God’s Creation. Without such conversion, as Laudato Si put it, we will try to impose our own laws on reality. This kind of pride leads to ecological destruction and social dysfunction. Laudato Si contains the following quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.
If Christians do not bring their spirituality to bear on the question of protecting the environment, the response to our current crisis will be based on secular ideologies. These ideologies will prove insufficient for the task, and may create greater harm. It is our duty to lead on this issue.
The Common Good
As we discussed in our earlier episode, this is a social encyclical first and foremost, not a “green” one. And so an important component of an ecological conversion is the CST principle of the primacy of the common good.
The world is not ours. The earth is the Lord’s. He made it for us—for all of us. Whenever we work for the common good, or preform a work of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. Part of the common good we must work toward is a healthy environment.
Common goods differ from private goods in a crucial way. Private goods diminish when they are shared. For instance, if two people share $10, each of them will have less than $10. Common goods, however, are those things that do not diminish when shared.
The very highest common good is the Beatific Vision. It isn’t a scarce resource we need to compete for; even if there are billions of people in heaven, it won’t “run out”. We should try to mirror this perspective even in our earthy lives. If we won’t be in competition in the world to come, then we should try live out that aspect of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Here on earth, the common good of a society is something that all share in. It is not merely a collection of private goods. Nor should the common good of society be seen as an attack on the private good of the individual. We see this perverse understanding of the common good in the Gospel, where Caiaphas says that it is better that one man to die for the people. Rather, the common good of society is something that no one individual can provide and that benefits everyone.
Jason brought up an interesting example of a particular common good. The security and order produced by a stable society benefits everyone. In many societies, however, security is not a common good. In such a situation, each private individual and each business needs to provide their own security in the form of armed guards. Those too poor to afford guards have to do without security.
Clean air is a obvious common good. If the air is clean, it benefits everyone. If your neighbor’s air is dirty, your air will also be dirty.
The Throw Away Culture
A key point in the first chapter of Laudato Si is the danger of a “throw away culture”. This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has used the term. In Evangelli Gaudium, he wrote:
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading.
A “throw away culture” stems from a grave lack of respect. In our society, we are encouraged to see things and people merely as useful. When they are no longer useful, they are discarded. Obviously, it is far more serious to throw away unborn children or the disabled elderly than to treat material things in a wasteful way. Still, the spirit behind these actions is the same. Not only that, but the “throw away culture” applied to goods actually is disrespectful both to human beings and to God. Creation is God’s gift to us, and treating it with disrespect is an insult to the giver. At the same time, our cavalier use of material things can directly impact others, and can lower the dignity of those who produce what we consume.
A good example of this dynamic is the way that companies bulldoze fairly new buildings to put up something new, rather than taking the time to build solidly and remodel buildings for new purposes. This disrespect not only leads to a fantastic waste of energy and resources, but it creates a sterile, ugly built environment that depresses the spirit of those who live within it. It also strips the dignity from the labor of construction workers.
Laudato Si‘s vision of “Dominion”
Quoting St. John Paul II, Pope Francis condemns a view of the world focused solely using it for our own ends. It is right and proper to use the world, but this use can’t obscure the inherent, intrinsic value of the things around us.
The wrong understanding of the Christian concept of “Dominion” can lead to this use-oriented vision. In Genesis, we read that humanity is given charge of creation, to till and keep it. This kind of dominion does not mean that we have absolute control. Neither does it justify the abuse of the world. Rather, it calls us to have a steward’s care of what has been given to us.
In an earlier episode with Augustine Tardiff from Madonna House, we discussed this concept. Augustine described his experience of working on the Madonna House farm, which helped him to gain a proper understanding of dominion. In particular, he talked about feeding a calf which seemed bent on making the process as difficult as possible. By taking care of animals, we can come to a faint understanding of the care God has for us. Exercising such care also fulfills our mission to show forth the image of God in which we were created.
The Interconnected Nature of Reality
We’re connected to all of creation. We couldn’t live without it. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:
It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.
The interconnected nature of reality means that care of creation is inseparable from care for others. We need a consistent life ethic.
The idea of a consistent life ethic is sometimes abused, or seen as a way to downplay the gravity of abortion. In reality, a consistent life ethic is a matter of reverence for all life, even when such reverence is inconvenient for us. All too often, our modern world tries to avoid inconvenience by replacing life with technology, something we can control. Life is God’s, and God’s way is not ours. Technology, by contrast, is our own thought projected onto the world, and so is more convenient for us.
Lack of reverence is a sin that flows through everything else. If we don’t see trees as a gift from God, that sin will propagate, and affect other life, even human life. That is why Laudato Si is a human life encyclical. Environmental degradation eventually affects human life; this is how that sin manifests. Jason talked about seeing first hand how the destruction of rain forest in Costa Rica has led to poverty, forced migration, and conflict. We have to realize that the seemingly small sin of not caring for life will spread.
The Common Destination of Goods
Going back to the idea of the common good: one of the principles of Catholic social teaching is that the Earth was created for all. No piece of property came with a name tag on it. Of course, we’re not communists. As Catholics, we do recognize the right to own private property, but private property is only legitimately owned if that ownership better serves the universal destination of human goods. Ownership is not an excuse for using the earth’s resources for one’s self.
This is particularly true in environmental matters. If someone owns critical aspects of an ecosystem and destroys them, that ownership is not legitimate. The earth is not theirs to destroy in such a way, and this destruction will affect other people. Modern scientific investigation actually supports this idea of the common good. I can’t just tinker with my property without affecting other people. Paving a parking lot increases stream flow. If enough people pave over their private land, it will end up flooding other people downstream.
The idea of unlimited individual freedom is dangerous. Christ gave up his freedom for us, and we should imitate him. Our culture does not understand Gospel poverty, but we must demonstrate this. We must be willing to give up some of our personal freedom for the Common Good; this allows us to treat others as brothers and sisters. Otherwise our relationship will be adversarial, confrontational.
In our culture, the traditional Christian practices of poverty and fasting and simplicity of life seem illegitimate. Such asceticism, however, is the only way to live out an ecological spirituality. How many social and environmental problems could be solved with a little more frugality!
For Christians, this is much more than just a matter of practicality. Voluntary poverty helps us to de-clutter our lives. It helps us to honor the idea of the universal destination of human goods. We can’t justify holding onto excess when others are starving. Voluntary poverty is not the same as destitution. Rather, without voluntary poverty, there will be destitution. Our voluntary poverty allows us to alleviate the destitution of others. For more on the topic of voluntary poverty, see our episode here.
The Depth of the Christian Message
Even the modern, secular world has come to realize the potential benefits of a simpler life. For instance, various political figures have called for meatless Mondays to benefit the environment. This has led to absurd situations in which some Christians are protesting against calls for material sacrifice. It would be much better if, instead, we saw such situations as a chance to do something in solidarity with those around us, while at the same time giving the practice a deeper, spiritual meaning.
This is a good example of a general theme: the Christian message is deeper than the secular message. That is the point of Laudato Si. The Church is not opposed to the secular concern for the environment; rather, the Church does environmentalism better than the world. This is a healthier understanding than one which sees the Christian message as merely the opposite of whatever the world is saying at a given time.
The Technocratic Paradigm
A good example of this deeper Christian message is Laudato Si’s warning about the “technocratic paradigm”. Pope Francis writes:
There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; . . . as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.
It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.
The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.
The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. . . . Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. . . . We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.
Technology, as Pope Francis warns, is not neutral. Every technology has its own inner logic, and imposes a certain shape on society. For instance, the automobile was developed to enable large distances to be covered quickly. It was a luxury item; most people were able to do without it in their daily lives. Now, it has reshaped our cities and our society to such an extent that in most parts of the USA it is a necessity. At the same time, society as a whole is not moving faster; we’re just moving in a different (and more environmentally destructive) way. In a sense, technologies such as the automobile share many of the characteristics of a protection racket. They produce a problem and then claim to solve it, making themselves necessary in the process.
Need for Community
The rejection of the technocratic paradigm is something individuals must pursue as part of an ecological conversion. We need to regain a perspective in which technology is merely a tool, and in consequence, is not allowed to reshape life in a destructive way. Living out this renewed perspective, however, is not possible without a community. In fact, once an individual has experienced an ecological conversion, they will probably find that the concrete change of life they feel called to requires a supportive community.
For those who are suspicious of Laudato Si, just try reading the first three chapters. Pray and reflect on what Pope Francis is really saying. He’s not asking for some global change from on high, but for us to change our hearts. Converted hearts inevitably change the world. If we want people to “eat well and keep warm” to paraphrase St. James, then we have to be willing to take concrete steps toward that goal. These steps must involve protecting our common home.
The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 clearly illustrates the dangerous nature of wealth. When the topic comes up, however, many Christians quickly point out that Christ only said “if you would be perfect”, and that it would be “hard” but not “impossible” for the rich to enter heaven. After all, while a camel going through a needle may seem impossible, Christ did say that nothing is impossible with God! Going even further, some have claimed that the eye of the needle was merely the name of a narrow gate or pass, through which a camel could pass, if perhaps with difficulty.
Before addressing this argument, it is important to clarify that Gospel poverty does not entail destitution, the lack of basic necessities. Father Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor explains this very well. Our summary of his book can be read here.
Necessary for What?
God’s mercy being infinite, it is of course true that voluntary poverty is not “necessary for salvation”. The only thing necessary for salvation is to humbly ask for the mercy of God. Someone can live a totally depraved life and be saved by asking for mercy at the last moment. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the message of the Gospel is not “do whatever you want and then ask for mercy at the last moment”. The real question for the Christian should be: is voluntary poverty an integral part of the Christian life?
Further, there is an interesting aspect to the idea of camels squeezing through a narrow gate. There is much debate as to whether the initial word in the Gospel was “camel” or “cable”, whether an “eye of the needle” gate existed, and so forth. Still, at least some commentators think the saying means that a camel could get through, but only if it was unloaded of all its baggage. After all, the rich are not a distinct species; they are human beings like the rest of us, with the addition of a lot of “stuff”. Christ may have been making a humorous comparison between a heavily burdened camel stuck in a narrow gate, and the wealthy who trudge through life spiritually weighed down by their possessions. The birds and wildflowers are carefree, while the rich need many barns to store their goods.
The inherently burdening nature of wealth, however, is denied by some Christians. According to them, when the Gospel counsels “poverty” what is really meant is mere detachment. They insist that so long as one isn’t inordinately attached to possessions, wealth is harmless or even beneficial.
For one thing, this idea ignores the vital connection between physical reality and spiritual attitudes. As Father Dubay puts it, for wounded human beings “possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed.” This is a Gnostic age that downplays material reality, an age which is “spiritual but not religious”. Christianity, however, is firmly rooted in the material, and takes physical actions very seriously. It is ironic that many who argue for mere inward detachment are simultaneously engaged in arguing for the importance of concrete, material acts of religion.
Our age is also an extremely individualist one. It is very telling that when the topic of poverty is discussed, the focus tends to be on the effects wealth may or may not have on one’s individual spirituality. The Gospel does not overlook the personal aspect, but puts even more stress on the social aspect of wealth. Whatever loopholes there may be in the story of the rich young man, there are no such loopholes in the picture presented by Matthew 25, James 2:14-17, and 1 John 3. If we don’t love and serve our brothers and sisters, then we don’t love God. This love can’t remain a spiritual thing of “thoughts and prayers”, but demands concrete action.
Christian love is absolutely incompatible with purchasing luxuries for ourselves while our brothers and sisters are starving. Such selfish actions also expose so-called “detachment” that is devoid of practical results as a pious sham. Someone who was truly detached would be only too willing to give surplus wealth away to feed the hungry.
To me, it seems that there is a fairly watertight case for the essential role of voluntary poverty, at least when the social dimension is taken into account. In one sense, however, the very fact that we’re discussing whether it is an essential practice highlights a problem. Here is an aspect of Christian spirituality that is extensively discussed in Sacred Scripture and that has been recommended in glowing terms by numerous saints. Given all this, why are we debating about whether it is essential? It seems rather like a debate about whether a good night’s sleep is important to academic or athletic performance the next day. Sure, you could possibly succeed without it; but why be so quick to dismiss something of such obvious value?
The folly of this dismissal can be seen by comparing Catholic attitudes toward voluntary poverty with Catholic attitudes toward the Rosary. The Rosary is certainly an excellent prayer, but it isn’t mentioned in scripture, and obviously isn’t necessary for living a good Christian life, let alone for salvation. Yet there are Rosary confraternities, books of rosary meditations, programs and articles on how to say the rosary, and organizations dedicated to promoting it. Many Catholics pray the rosary every day. All well and good. The contrast with voluntary poverty, however, is striking. Shouldn’t we put at least as much effort into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on voluntary poverty as we put into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on the Rosary and other non-biblical religious practices? Perhaps if Catholics reclaimed this traditional yet neglected element of the Faith, our Church would be transformed.
In this episode, I interview Tyler Hambley from the Maurin House, a new Catholic Worker House in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
The Hope of the Poor
Tyler’s first experience of Catholic Worker-style life came when he was a divinity student in Durham, North Carolina. He started gathering with a small group to pray vespers every evening at a local Episcopalian church, and over time the group started meeting after vespers for meals. The church grounds had become a sort of hangout for the local homeless population.
One of the intercession at vespers is “let the hope of the poor not be in vain”. As Tyler explained, we have to let our prayers become a lived reality, not just words. In this case, the embodiment of the prayer started by inviting some of the homeless to their community meals. Over time, friendships developed, and eventually, some members of this group started renting housing together and taking in the homeless. Things developed organically until there were three houses with around 20 people living in them as a community.
Over time, however, Tyler and some of the other members of the community began to feel attracted to the Catholic Church. Eventually, Tyler’s family joined another family from the Durham community to start the Maurin House in Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis.
The writers Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre had a big influence on Tyler. They taught him the importance of shared practices in community life, of becoming a certain kind of person rather than making certain decisions. Hauerwas says that if one has to make a decision, all may have been lost. If we have to decide whether to act in a virtuous manner, it shows that we are not yet virtuous people. Becoming virtuous means acquiring certain virtuous habits of thought and action.
We can only live as Christians by following a certain tradition as a community. As individuals, the best we can do is try to make good decisions, but as a community we can build a way of life within the Christian tradition.
The Living Tradition
Traditionalism, however, is dangerous, since traditionalists have a flawed understanding of the tradition. They think of it as if it were a static thing that stays unchanged. In reality, however, the tradition is a living thing, a story that we continue. A tradition or culture which is closed off from further experience and further development dies.
The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is, at least in theory, inspired by MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. There is a lot of good in the Benedict Option idea, but the motivation is flawed. The Benedict Option is presented as an answer to the growing hostility of the surrounding culture. This is the wrong motivation for building community. Fear of the surrounding culture will not produce the kind of practices that will form persons in virtue. (In a recent podcast episode, I discussed the Benedict Option at length with Dr. Cameron Thompson.)
The anger of “culture warrior” Catholics stems from a fear that they will lose access to the comforts and prestige of suburban American culture. The culture warriors are often seen as the opposites of the so-called “liberals”, who are willing to compromise their values to maintain the world’s favor. These two ideologies seem opposed to one another, and yet they are actually the same. Both are unwilling to reject the comfort of our consumer society, embrace voluntary poverty, and follow Christ through self-sacrificing service to the poor.
Radical or Superficial
The real division is not between progressives and conservatives, but between radical Christians and superficial ones. Christianity isn’t compatible with consumerism and the comfortable security obtained through insurance and high-paying jobs. This sort of comfort and security will inevitably undermine the Faith. In contrast, radical communities can provide their members with a different kind of support and security, based on mutual self-sacrifice and trust. For more on this topic, see our blog post about preppers and suburbanites.
The Hospitable Family
Christian parents are called to raise their children, of course. This does not, however, mean that they can ignore the needs of the wider community. In fact, as Tyler mentioned, the Catechism says that Catholic families “should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.”
In some ways, care for children and care for the poor are very similar and reinforce one another. Just as Christian couples are called to be open to life and the inconvenient demands it puts on them, we’re all called to be open to aiding the poor in a sacrificial manner. Both kinds of openness are part of building a “culture of life.” In both cases, those who give generously “receive back a hundred fold”. We shouldn’t see the poor or children merely as those we help. Rather, children, the poor, and all the weak and vulnerable mediate Christ for us. That’s a very different perspective than the standard social justice one!
Families living in community can experience a certain amount of tension between the demands of family life and the demands of community. On the other hand, Tyler explained that as a father he feels he needs community. Too much emphasis on the family unit can leave parents as isolated individuals accountable to no one. Accountability and obedience aren’t just for children; parents also need support, guidance, and correction from others.
Advice on Starting a Community
In closing, Tyler gave some advice to those who want to build community. It is best not to start with grand expectations or plans. Instead, it is better to find a few others with similar interests, and start engaging in shared practices: particularly in shared prayer, but also in shared meals and recreation. Out of the friendships that develop a community can grow over time.
Learn more about the Maurin House at their website.
Over the past ninety years, the American economy has grown dramatically. It is now 19 times larger than it was in 1930. Its growth is exponential; it is doubling at a more or less fixed rate, which means its absolute growth rate is rapidly increasing. In fact, our economy needs to grow to stay alive; without growth, it crashes. (COVID-19 has temporarily halted, and even reversed, economic growth; it remains to be seen if the economy will “recover” in the coming years.)
This need for growth is problematic in a number of different ways. Most fundamentally, we live on a finite planet, and anything that has to grow forever will eventually run into limits of some sort. In this essay, I want to consider a particular question: how does a growing economy affect the development and existence of communities, whether intentional or organic?
To answer this question, we need to answer another one: why does the economy grow? There are a number of causes driving economic growth. For one thing, our population is also growing. There are more people in the United States today than there were in 1930, and so there are more workers and more demand for goods and services. This population growth isn’t a complete explanation for our economic growth, however; while our economy today is 19 times larger than it was in 1930, our population is less than three times larger than it was in that year. Another reason for this growth is that living standards have risen. Some of this rise is beneficial, since it involves people obtaining better access to basic necessities. This rise, however, is also insufficient to explain the growth of the economy. Even before the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was on the rise, and 10% of American households were experiencing food insecurity, and yet the economy was growing rapidly.
Much of the growth in the modern economy is driven by two factors: increased desires, and commodification.
In our society, we’re constantly bombarded by advertising, and we experience social pressure to “keep up” with the increasingly consumptive lifestyle of those around us. This pressure can make us desire all kinds of things beyond what is necessary for a dignified human life.
Houses today are much bigger than they used to be; while 70 years ago the average new home had 983 square feet of floor space, the average new home in 2020 had 2333 square feet. This extra space is a vacuum crying out to be filled with consumer items of all sorts. In fact, many Americans now find that the space available to them is too small, and the personal storage industry, which hardly existed 70 years ago, has ballooned dramatically.
Fashion contributes to this growth of desires, causing perfectly good clothes and other items to be discarded in favor of the latest and greatest. Software is continually updated, cars are traded in, and “dated” appliances and countertops are scrapped.
Disposable items, mostly made of plastic, are ubiquitous in the United States, and promote economic growth by replacing more durable goods. In general, the faster a given item moves from the store shelf to the landfill, the more the economy grows.
“Economy” literally means “the management of the household”. It is how households and societies support themselves. In this sense, vegetables grown in the backyard for personal consumption are part of the economy, as is the work of a child watching younger siblings. Goods and services of this type, however, are not counted toward the GDP of the formal economy. One of the major ways that the formal economy grows is through commodification, by turning social “capital” of this sort into financial wealth. A good example of this is entertainment. In past times, entertainment was a relatively small proportion of the formal economy; people made most of their own entertainment for free. Now, entertainment has become a multi-billion dollar industry, increasing the size of the economy. There are many similar examples in other areas of the economy; in the past, most cooking, mending, and child care was performed by the informal, social economy instead of by the formal financial economy. Even the basic social interaction of conversation is becoming commodified by social media platforms that see us as an audience for advertising. Every time a social interaction is replaced by a financial transaction, the economy grows.
This growth produces constant disruption on many different levels. People move across the country as the economic prospects in a given location change. Factories are torn down for homes. Farms become suburbs, and suburbs, in turn, are bulldozed to make room for expanding city centers. Businesses have become ephemeral. Even large businesses now have an average lifespan of only 18 years, and small businesses are even more transitory. Whole industries and the skill sets they require quickly become obsolete. This churning disruption boosts economic growth even further.
Effects on Community
It should be fairly obvious that this growth damages community, both directly and indirectly. Commodification in particular destroys the opportunity for community building. There is a certain trade-off: home cooked meals build community better than fast food meals eaten on the go, but the latter produce more economic growth. Increasing desires make it harder to stay in one place and put down roots, since our society penalizes those who are unwilling to be both geographically and socially mobile. The indirect effects of growth are also detrimental; no community can develop if everything is in a state of constant flux.
To build community, we need to push back against the drivers of economic growth. It is literally a matter of life and death. The economy needs to grow, or it will die. If we let the growth machine drive us, its hunger will eat up every scrap of social connection in our lives. The process may make us wealthy (if we’re among the lucky ones who end up on top) but it will leave us spiritually and socially dead.
On the societal scale, those with the skills and aptitude to do so should pursue the transition to a steady-state economy not dependent on growth. We’ve come to see exponential growth as normal, but in a wider historical sense it is deeply abnormal. There are other ways to structure an economy.
We don’t need to wait for social transformation, however. We can reign in our desires by embracing the Christian virtue of voluntary poverty. We can resist the pull of hyper-mobility and the restlessness of the modern world in our personal lives. Perhaps most importantly, we can reverse the trend toward commodification. By working together, making music, cultivating conversation, tending gardens, repairing homes, and enjoying meals, we can knit the severed threads of community life back together.
Postscript: At first glance, it seems that economic contraction also destroys communities. I’ve seen this play out firsthand in the Rust Belt. The reason for such destruction, however, is that economic growth had already destroyed older, non-commercialized ways of life. In a sense, the devastation seen when the economy declines is simply a revelation of the preexisting, underlying destruction.
Our current economic growth appears to be unsustainable. It is very likely that many local communities will face economic contraction in the future. This contraction will be destructive, unless communities can band together, reject the narratives of growth, and find non-commercial, community-based ways to meet their needs.
Port image by Fatlouie CC BY-SA 3.0
In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, St. John Henry Newman distinguishes between “real” and “notional” assent and understanding. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying his argument, “notional” knowledge is the sort of knowledge we have of abstract concepts. In a notional way, I assent to the proposition that 2+2+4; I believe this to be true. We also have notional knowledge of many concrete realities that we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, my knowledge of Julius Caesar, and my assent to the reality of his existence, is notional.
We gain “real” knowledge through direct experience. I have real experience of my parents, and can give a real assent to their existence. We can also have a “real” knowledge of some concrete realities we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, Newman explained that he could have a “real” knowledge of a fire in London even when he was hundreds of miles away. This was possible for him because he had direct experience of London, and direct experience with fires, though not with this particular one.
Newman does not mean to say that notional knowledge and assent aren’t real, but rather that such knowledge and assent aren’t based on concrete experience. He goes on to explain that notional knowledge generally does not touch us as deeply as real knowledge.
Our knowledge of God can be either notional or real; Newman calls the notional knowledge of God “theological” and real knowledge of God “religious”. For our spiritual life to grow and develop properly, we need a real, religious experience of God. Our Faith isn’t an abstract proposition, but a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus wanted this relationship of faith to be a communal rather than a purely individual matter. This is the purpose of the Church: to bring us together in union with Christ as the mystical body.
As with our knowledge of God, our knowledge of the Church should be a “real” knowledge. The Church isn’t an idea or a list of rules. Nor is it the building down the street. The Church is a community to which one gives one’s life. Though the Church is spread across the world, it is also local and particular. William T. Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed contains the following beautiful reflection on the local nature of the Church:
This universalization of the body of Christ, however, is never detached from the local and the particular, for the eucharistic community is essentially local, gathered around the altar in a particular time and place. Furthermore, the particular is of supreme importance because the Eucharist is not a mere sign that points to Christ; this particular piece of bread is the body of Christ . . . The catholicity of the church is not sustained by a cosmopolitan detachment from the particular . . . “Catholic” means a gathering rather than a spreading out, a unification of the many through attachment to the local eucharistic community. One becomes more catholic, more universal, the more one is tied to a particular community of Christians gathered around the altar.
Sacrosanctum concilium outlines the same idea:
41. The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.
Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.
42. But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.
If we are connected to the Church through the local Eucharistic community, then in a certain sense it is almost impossible to fully join the Catholic Church in the USA. It is almost impossible to gain a real, experiential knowledge that would enable us to give a real, as opposed to a notional, assent to the Church’s claim on us.
It is perfectly possible to have a loving relationship with Christ—he can be encountered everywhere. It is perfectly possible to enter one of the many church buildings, and receive life giving sacraments. In a sense, however, the Church can only be joined if that building contains a true community gathered around those sacraments, a community to which one can give one’s life. All too often, our church buildings contain merely a disconnected collection of individuals showing up to a “Mass stop”. Even if we participate in extra-liturgical activities, we tend to go our separate ways, living and working apart from one another.
This perhaps explains why some individuals join the Church only to leave it again. They’ve heard about the Church; they give a notional assent; but not finding the concrete reality, nominal assent can never become real and vivifying. Discussing this problem, the priests who host the “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” podcast said ‘there is nothing to bring them (converts) into”!
Newman does point out that it is possible to come to real knowledge, and therefore real assent, without direct physical experience. He explains that if someone tells him there’s a fire in London, he can get a real knowledge of it, in part because he’s experienced fires and cities before. In our case, however, this indirect route to real knowledge is very difficult. The Church is a kind of community, and most of us have never experienced a real community. Our so-called communities tend to be more voluntary and accidental collections of individuals with a high turnover rate; perhaps it isn’t surprising that this experience shapes many Americans’ participation in the Church.
This means that for most of us, the Christian life is out of reach, since the Christian life is fundamentally about participation in the Church. We can live “as Christians”, since that can be done anywhere. One can live as a Christian even in a concentration camp or on a desert island. We’re each personally responsible for our response to God’s Grace. Yet the “Christian life” remains out of reach for the isolated individual.
The essential nature of community for joining the Church may also explain why Christianity declines in wealthy countries and thrives in poor ones. Wealth is largely a means for avoiding the necessity of community life, as I address in this blog post.
What can be done about this? We have to enrich our faith, moving from nominal to real knowledge. We have to find others to gather with: as Jesus said, where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. Such gathering must eventually move on to commitment, formal or informal, or one has not truly “joined” anything. And further, such gatherings should not be separate from the parish structure. There are various nominally Catholic groups that capitalize on the desire for community, and build themselves up at the expense of the local church. Even if, at present, the parish is merely an uncomfortable and empty shell, it provides the structure that assures our local community is really an instantiation of Christ’s body, a branch on the vine, not a lopped branch doomed to wither.
By building local community, we can renew the Church by being the Church, by making it once again an “ekklesia” or assembly, instead of merely a building.